Thursday, October 30, 2008

My Schedule for the Week of Nov. 3

Starting today, I will be posting about conferences and seminars I will be attending or presenting. Here's my schedule for the week of November 3 through 8:

Nov. 4 - Bernstein Private Wealth Symposium
Hotel Nikko, San Francisco 8:30 - 1:30. You can read more about it here. The Bernstein symposium will focus on the roots of the current financial mess, and the potential for opportunities. Since much of estate planning is about preserving wealth for future generations, this should be informative.

Nov. 6 through 8 - State Bar of California Taxation Section Annual Meeting
Grand Hyatt, San Francisco. This is a three day event covering all manner of topics related to taxation. I will be attending seminars on taxation related to estate planning, wealth transfer and other trust and estate related issues.

These two conferences should provide a host of topics for future posts. Stay tuned!

Monday, October 27, 2008

DOMA Challenged on First Amendment Grounds

Charles Merrill has filed a lawsuit with the Federal Tax Court claiming that the Defense of Marriage Act violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This comes to us from the Tax Prof. Blog.

The Establishment Clause is an interesting choice. I would have picked the Equal Protection Clause, since restricting marriage to a man and a woman would seem to deny same sex couples a fundamental right (to take advantage of certain tax laws such as the unlimited marital deduction). But what do I know?

I will try to follow this as best I can.

Death, Divorce and the Surviving Spouse

Recent case law is a trove of potential blog topics. Estate of McDaniel (2008) 161 Cal.App.4th 458 (if you're keeping score) addressed the intersection of death and divorce. The court held that the wife was not a "surviving spouse" where the husband died after the two had instituted divorce proceedings, divided their property pursuant to a stipulated judgment, but where the final termination of the marriage was not yet in effect.

Husband and wife entered into a stipulated judgment in July 2005 dividing their property and dissolving their marriage, with the final termination to become effective in October 2005. In the meantime, the couple tried to reconcile and signed, but did not file, a dismissal of the dissolution action. Husband died in a motorcycle accident in September 2005.

The court held that because the couple had separated their community property, confirmed their separate property, and accounted for and waived their marital property rights, the wife was not entitled to inherit husband's estate because she was not a surviving spouse pursuant to probate code section 78.

Estate planning is geared toward expecting the unexpected. That extends to estate planning's intersection with family law. Here, had the couple filed the dismissal of the divorce before husband's untimely death, the court would likely have held that wife was entitled to inherit the estate. As an attorney, this is obvious, but I'm sure that husband and wife's priorities were a little different.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Gifting with Depressed Asset Values

The Wall Street Journal strikes again. In October 18's Money Matters column, Anne Tergesen writes about taking advantage of depressed asset prices and low interest rates to make gifts during your lifetime. This would take the assets out of your estate, and if done properly allow you to transfer the assets tax free.

Among other things, Ms. Tergesen writes that a transferring a depressed asset, such as shares of stock, to a family member could be a benefit when the asset price rebounds. The methods include Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs) and Charitable Lead Annuity Trusts (CLATS). Read the column to get a brief overview of what these instruments are, and then call an attorney for more information.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Obama and McCain on Estate Taxes

Yesterday was the last debate between Barack Obama and John McCain before the election. Although they did not tread much new ground in their comments, one area that was covered (at least a little bit) was taxes.

And speaking of taxes, what are the candidates positions on the estate tax? As I posted previously, Obama favors freezing the estate tax at the 2009 level ($3.5 million exemption, 45% rate), whereas McCain's plan is for a $5 million exemption and a 15% rate, which matches the capital gains tax rate.

A major issue, on which both candidates seem to agree is portability. Basically, it means that married couples could use their spouse's exemption in their estate. This was reported on in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. Here's how it would work: Currently, each spouse's estate gets an exemption (for 2008 it is $2 million, increasing to $3.5 million in 2009) before the estate tax is assessed. When one spouse dies, and they leave their estate to the surviving spouse, it passes free of taxes (note: this is for opposite-sex spouses only at the federal level, courtesy the Federal Defense of Marriage Act.) to the surviving spouse. The surviving spouse, however, only gets to use their exemption. For example, if Husband dies and leaves his $2 million estate to Wife, and Wife has an estate of her own of $2 million, she will now have an estate of $4 million, but currently only a $2 million exemption. If Wife were to die this year, she would have estate tax exposure on the $2 million she inherited from her Husband. With portability, she could use her husband's $2 million exemption and avoid estate tax exposure. This would make estate planning somewhat less complex for opposite-sex married couples.

The primary purpose of estate planning should not be tax avoidance, but in reality, it plays an major role. Even with portability, there are many non-tax reasons for trusts of various complexity. That's a post for another time.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Forfieted Deposit as Damages in Failed Probate Sale

In Estate of Felder, the California Second Appellate District upheld the award of $48,000 as damages for a buyer's withdrawal from the purchase of real property in a probate sale. The $48,000 was the amount of the buyer's deposit.

California Probate Code section 10350 allows the seller to recover damages from a buyer who pulls out of a transaction involving real or personal property after the court has approved the sale. The damages can include the difference between the original buyer's purchase price and the price the property later sold for, plus expenses made necessary by the purchaser's breach, and other "consequential" damages. The court here held that the first buyer's breach caused a total of over $55,000 in damages. The court ordered that the buyer forfeit his $48,000 to cover the damages caused by the breach, even though the actual damages were higher.

The buyer appealed, claiming that the court had no authority to order the forfeiture of the deposit. The Court of appeals upheld the lower court's order, noting that "The estate was entitled to retain the entire $48,000 as statutory damages and not as a deposit."

If you are involved in a probate sale of real property, you can get damages if your buyer withdraws after you have received court approval of the sale. If you are buying property subject to a probate court approval, BEWARE, you could be on the hook for serious damages if you cancel after the court has approved the sale.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Estate Planning During Economic Catastrophe

I'm not an alarmist, but like you, loyal readers, I'm a little freaked by all the economic news. On the TV last night I watched esteemed economics professors using phrases like "classic bank run." And this was on News Hour on PBS!

So, what does this have to do with estate planning? Well, during times like this, you might be inclined to put your estate plan on the back burner. Don't. Here's why: your need for an estate plan doesn't go away because of economic uncertainty. If you don't have a plan, you should still get one. If you do have a plan that is out of date, you should still get it updated.

The fact is that estate plans can be expensive, and during times like these, you probably want to hang on to as much cash as you can for security. Here are some tips for keeping as much of that cash as possible, while still getting a plan in place:

Get a Will Instead of a Trust

Estate planning attorneys like to recommend trusts because they are more flexible than wills, they avoid probate (which can be expensive, time consuming, and is a public court record), and they can be set up to assist you if you become incapacitated. Because they can do so much more than a will, they are much more complicated documents. Because they are much more complicated documents, they are more expensive to prepare. If you want an estate plan, but cannot afford a living trust, a will might do for now. Let's look at the following scenario:

A married couple in their late 30s with two children under the age of 5. They own their own home worth about $550,000 (titled as community property), each have about $100,000 in separate 410(k) plans from current and previous employers, and each have $500,000 life insurance policies with 30-year terms naming the other as beneficiaries. They also have about $35,000 in checking and savings accounts. All of their assets are in California and are community property.

In a perfect world, an estate planner would recommend a living trust that is split into two trusts on the death of the first spouse (one for the surviving spouse, and another funded with the deceased spouse's estate that bypasses the surviving spouse to ensure something for the children), and trust for the children that will pay the money outright to them when they turn 25 or graduate from college. Such a plan would avoid probate, would ensure that there is some money to be inherited by the children when the surviving spouse dies, and would ensure that they children don't get the money before they are ready to handle it. In the world of living trusts, this is a more simple plan, but it is still a pretty complex document. It can also be very expensive to prepare.

Can you achieve the same result with a will? Not really, but you can come close. With the wills, you can create a trust with your estate, but you cannot split the estate into two trusts on the death of the first spouse. Because the assets are all community property each spouse's estate is half of each asset. That becomes tough to split when it is not held in cash (like the house). Although each spouse could leave their estate to their children in trust (rather than to each other), it would likely result in the liquidating of the estate assets in order to properly fund the trust. Since the surviving spouse would probably want to stay in the house, each spouse should give their estate to the other spouse. The house would automatically transfer to the surviving spouse because it is titled as community property. The surviving spouse would receive the insurance proceeds and 401(k) as beneficiary.

Their might not necessarily be a probate on the death of the first spouse. Assets held jointly (like the house) do not go through probate. Assets with beneficiary designations (like the life insurance and the 401(k)s) also don't go through probate. If a person's probate estate is less than $100,000, then probate can be avoided. Here, the actual assets subject to probate are less than $100,000, so probate can be avoided on the death of the first spouse. (The surviving spouse will probably not be able to avoid probate because the house will no longer be held jointly, and the proceeds from the life insurance will be held by the surviving spouse alone.)

To keep the will-based plan as simple as possible, they could leave their estates to each other, and if their spouse does not survive them to their children in a California Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (CUTMA) account. This holds the money in an account, and distributes the money to them outright when they reach an age between 18 and 25. The will can also name guardians for their children while they are still minors. They can execute durable powers of attorney for financial decisions in the event they become incapacitated, and advance health care directives for their medical decisions.

This is much more simple, and less expensive, to prepare than a living trust. It has some drawbacks, but it is far better than no plan at all.

If you are considering an estate plan, but are uncomfortable with the expense of getting a living trust, a will may be a good alternative. Once the ecomony picks up, and you feel better about spending the money on your estate plan, it can always be amended to include a trust.

Don't let economic uncertainty keep you from putting together that you know you should have.